Lessons learned from telco data informing COVID-19 responses: toward an early warning system for future pandemics?

Introduction to a special issue of Data and Policy (Open Access) by Richard Benjamins, Jeanine Vos, and Stefaan Verhulst: “More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the damage is still unfolding. While some countries have recently managed to gain an element of control through aggressive vaccine campaigns, much of the developing world — South and Southeast Asia in particular — remain in a state of crisis. Given what we now know about the global nature of this disease and the potential for mutant versions to develop and spread, a crisis anywhere is cause for concern everywhere. The world remains very much in the grip of this public health crisis.

From the beginning, there has been hope that data and technology could offer solutions to help inform the government’s response strategy and decision-making. Many of the expectations have been focused on mobile data analytics in particular, whereby mobile network operators create mobility insights and decision-support tools generated from anonymized and aggregated telco data. This stems both from a growing group of mobile network operators having significantly invested in systems and capabilities to develop such products and services for public and private sector customers. As well as their value having been demonstrated in addressing different global challenges, ranging from models to better understand the spread of Zika in Brazil to interactive dashboards to aid emergency services during earthquakes and floods in Japan. Yet despite these experiences, many governments across the world still have limited awareness, capabilities and resources to leverage these tools, in their efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 using non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI), both from a medical and economic point of view.

Today, we release the first batch of papers of a special collection of Data & Policy that examines both the potential of mobile data, as well as the challenges faced in delivering these tools to inform government decision-making. Consisting of 5 papers from 33 researchers and experts from academia, industry and government, the articles cover a wide range of geographies, including Europe, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Austria, Belgium, and Spain. Responding to our call for case studies to illustrate the opportunities (and challenges) offered by mobile big data in the fight against COVID-19, the authors of these papers describe a number of examples of how mobile and mobile-related data have been used to address the medical, economic, socio-cultural and political aspects of the pandemic….(More)”.